Public Release: 

Titanic disaster: New theory fingers coal fire

Geological Society of America

A smoldering coal fire - and the continuing attempt to control it through the voyage - may have led to the sinking of the Titanic 92 years ago, says engineer Robert Essenhigh of Ohio State University.

While everyone knows it was a collision with an iceberg that sank the White Star Liner on her maiden voyage, nobody knows why the Titanic was sailing full steam through a known iceberg field at night. Coal's tendency to ignite and smolder while stored may provide the answer, says Essenhigh. There are records that there was such a fire in the Titanic's forward bunker #6.

Essenhigh will be presenting his theory on Sunday at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver, in a session entitled Wild Coal Fires: Burning Questions with Global Consequences?

First of all, says Essenhigh, it's important to rule out the reason for speed put forth in the movies: to set a speed record or impress other sailors. The crew of the Titanic couldn't have been trying to break any records crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, says Essenhigh, because according to the published records the Titanic was built for comfort, not speed.

"There was a further problem that because of a miners strike, there wasn't originally enough coal on the ship for sailing at full speed and the original plan was to sail at half-speed and take it easy," Essenhigh said. "It wasn't designed as the fastest ship." Plus, according to the published records the crew was getting radio reports of icebergs from other ships, so a slow down would have made sense. There are reports that one ship in the area was so cautious that they stopped dead in the water to await daylight before proceeding, he said.

So if there was a reason for the speed, it had to be something important - like a fire in the coal bunker that needed to be kept under control and then put out as soon as the ship reached port.

The standard technique for controlling and eliminating such fires on steamships was to increase the rate at which the coal was being removed from the bunker and put into the steam engine boiler in order to increase the rate of draw-down of the coal pile, Essenhigh explains. When the firemen reached the smoldering fire they would just shovel it into the boiler and the problem was solved.

Of course, all that shoveling makes for a lot of steam, resulting in the need to increase the steaming rate and quicker cruising.

Historical records show that on leaving dock each of the six of Titanic's coal bunkers were only about half-full with 800 tons of coal. Based on laboratory experiments on coal burning rates done at Sheffield University in the 1950s, Essenhigh estimates that at full throttle, the Titanic's coal supply would have been dropping at about an inch per hour. If that is correct, a festering fire halfway down the coal pile would have been burning up at about the same rate as it was being drawn down and would not have been reached and removed by the time of the iceberg collision. There would still be a reason for the speed on that fateful night.

"It's very speculative," Essenhigh admits. But not far fetched. Smoldering fires in piles of coal even today is a common thing - and there are even records from fire control teams at the ports of Southampton and Cherbourg that such a fire was burning onboard the Titanic.

"This was a chronic problem," says Essenhigh of coal fires on all coal-fired steam ships and even in coal fired power plants today. "If the fire is there you know it's there and it's very difficult to get it out."

What Sank the Titanic? The Possible Contribution of the Bunker Fire Sunday, November 7, 9:15-9:30 a.m., CCC 102 Abstract may be viewed at:


During the GSA Annual Meeting, 7-10 November, contact Ann Cairns at the GSA Newsroom, Colorado Convention Center, Denver, for assistance and to arrange for interviews: 303-228-8570.

Geological Society of America
116th Annual Meeting
7-10 November 2004
Colorado Convention Center
Denver, CO, USA

Geological Society of America

Geological Society of America Release No. 04-30

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